Thursday, March 21, 2013

Plunked by Michael Northrop

I toss the softball straight up, eye its descent like a hawk, before swinging the aluminum bat hard while pivoting my hips; a satisfying thud shatters the silence as the ball sails into the net. I repeat the cathartic motion again and again: toss, smash, toss, smash, toss smash. I love sports... especially baseball. I got a chance to play slow pitch last Tuesday and had a blast just tossing the ball up and clobbering it into the pitching net. A peacefulness settles on me like dust on the field when I hit or play catch. Reading Plunked is like reliving the joy of playing ball all over again from the author's description of the pitching machine making "fa-chunk" noises to the excitement of coming from behind in a close game. If you don't love baseball, you won't love this book, so don't bother picking it up if you are expecting more. The story is somewhat short on plot, and the interesting parts take place on the field.

Jack Mogens is a sixth grader who plays baseball with his friends and has a crush on a girl on their team. He's trying to win a starting spot on the team against another player and his best friend, Andy, plays for the team as well. Malfoy used to be his friend but he's become a nasty piece of work that hates Jack.  When Jack gets hit by a pitch he has serious issues with being afraid of the ball and wonders if he'll ever play again. He starts to lie to others rather than deal with the problem and while he's trying to hide the fact, everyone seems to know what is going on. Or they are giving him time to deal with it.

This light-hearted novel has a great voice in Jack who sounds like a doofy 6th-grader as he tries to talk cool with his friends calling each other "dingus" and other dumb names. Readers will laugh at the "jerk-butts" and middle school humor. The friendship between Andy and Jack is quite real and I liked how Andy tells him to "deal with it" and move on but doesn't overtalk the problem. Malfoy is one-dimensional. I thought more would happen with him in the story or the two would confront each other but that never materializes.

I would have preferred more tension and depth, but some will like the simplistic plot. I thought the chapters were too short with not enough tension or depth added. When Jack is sitting with his family I got bored and didn't see how it advanced the plot. Maybe if there had been some foreshadowing to crank up the tension? I wanted more from the story. More about Jack's fear. More about working as a team. More about the friendships. Sport stories tend to focus on characters overcoming obstacles, the emphasis of team over individual glory, good sportsmanship, and so on. While this touched on that it didn't go as deep as I wanted. That said, I am an adult looking at a story for children and the topics I'm interested in are going to be different than a child's; I don't think students will care that the story isn't complex but will enjoy it for what it is.

At first I thought Jack's injury wasn't really serious enough, but then I thought about how fast and hard pitchers can throw in Little League and it is entirely possible for Jack to get that scared. My husband was 10 years old and had to lie immobile, in a hospital bed for a week, after a pitcher hit him in the eye. He almost lost his eye. I took a  fall off the high bars in gymnastics as an 11 year old that terrified me. I only knocked the wind out of my lungs but I'll never forget trying to suck in air and not being able to. I've knocked the wind out of my lungs many times since then, but it has never been as bad or as frightening as that high bar experience, and like Jack, I had nightmares about it. Sports force athletes to face fears in many ways, whether from accidents or learning new skills, and sometimes, those fears can be irrational. But they are very real and can be very crippling. This book explores that theme in a way that is satisfying and different, and for that reason, I highly recommend it.

Reading Level 4.5
3 Smileys

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